Location Italy

The Land Where Lemons Grow by Helena Attlee

Sicilian lemon grove
Lemon trees in Sicily. Many of the traditional lemon groves are abandoned because maintaining them is labour intensive.

Next time I pass through Savona, I need to stop and find myself a candied chinotti. It’s a type of citrus fruit used in the perfume industry and candied in panettone.

I told a friend that I was reading a book about the history and farming of citrus fruits in Italy. He laughed. But the more you see a land, the more you want to understand it. It helps that the book flows with a personal narrative and delighting anecdotes.

Perhaps I enjoyed the book more because I’ve eaten Amalfi lemons, lived a few weeks on the outskirts of Palermo and wandered lost, in the rain, through abandoned lemon groves. Perhaps it helps to have drunk homemade limoncello.

Surely it helps that I know what a citron is. When I was in Sicily last winter, I ate a slice of one. This beast is somewhere between a lemon and a rugby ball. Its skin isn’t smooth. You can’t find it in our supermarkets, and its juicy centre is pitifully small. Imagine the earth, with its small core, thick mantle and rough crust. The segments are the core, the pith is the mantle and the yellow surface rough with character. The juice is incredibly sharp. You eat it, and the thick white pith, with salt.

Before visiting Sicily, I’d never heard of this fruit. Along with the mandarin and the pomelo it’s one of the oldest citrus. The rest of the citrus family (which is much more extensive than just oranges, lemons and limes) is descended from these fruits.

I made lemon sorbet yesterday afternoon.

“Don’t pick the prickly pear by the paw, when you pick a pear try to use the claw.”

prickly pear
When I first saw one of these in a greengrocers, I had no idea what it was.

“When you pick a paw paw or prickly pear.

And you prick a raw paw, next time beware.

Don’t pick the prickly pear by the paw, when you pick a pear try to use the claw.”

Baloo, The Bare Necessities, The Jungle Book

Prickly Pears in Napoli

In a greengrocer’s, in the outskirts of Naples, DeepThought and I had a minor argument about an aubergine. Apparently, I shouldn’t have bought an aubergine; he didn’t like them. But how was I supposed to know when he was busy enjoying having the delights of a fig of India, known to me as a prickly pear, peeled and sliced for him by the smiling young Italian woman behind the counter.

A prickly pear: it’s a fleshy fruit, with largish seeds which like seeded grapes remind you that what you’re eating has a purpose other than tasting sweet. You can eat the seeds. They crunch. These cacti fruits grow prolifically in southern Italy. But don’t just yank one free with your bare hand. This isn’t a fruit that’s smooth like a sweet mandarin, it’s covered in tiny spikes.

We took a couple home with us. Alongside the aubergine. And inevitably, a couple of hours later, (after DeepThought had been surprised by liking aubergine), it was necessary to dig out a pair of tweezers.

prickly pear
If you take off one of the big paddles and plant it in a pot, it grows. And grows. And grows.

Prickly Pears through History

Reading through Colour: Travels Through The Paint Box by Victoria Finlay I discovered that prickly pear plants are the homes of little white cochineal bugs which when crushed make a beautiful red dye. Lipstick red.

The journey of these plants from South America is a story of this dye. A plantation of prickly pears sprung up in Madras as part of a plot by the East India Trading Company to crack the Spanish monopoly and produce the dye themselves. The plants were brought from Kew Gardens and men began dreaming of the riches they would have if only they could get hold of the live bugs. The bugs though had other plans.

Prickly pear cacti were also taken to Australia with the intention to start up a cochineal industry there. Unfortunately, not only did all the bugs die, but the cacti went wild and have since become a prolific spiky weed.

prickly pear
Harvesting tools.

Prickly Pears in Sicily

In Sicily, in the middle of a grey siesta in a break from a storm, I went hunting my own prickly pears. Sicily is a good place for prickly pears, the Sicilian variety is apparently high in all sorts of wonderful vitamins. I didn’t have to hunt very far – I found pink pears on the driveway.

I took with me the prickly pear picker (I lack suitable claws) and a plant pot in which to place my pears. The trick is to place the cup around the pear and then twist. It’s easier said than done. My pears went rolling down the drive.

The next morning, I ate them for breakfast. They taste a bit like watermelon.

An English cook in Sicily (and the commotion this entailed)

Sicily Cooking
Ok, this is the neighbours outdoor over, not the actual one I cooked on.

The morning began when I asked where the coffee was – in the fridge duh – and Maria started making tea. That is tea with rosemary, red berries and orange peel.

Maria looked at me, “Candle?”

Being English wasn’t working.

Sicilian Cooking
Ingenious or crazy?

At eight in the morning with my coffee unmade I observed the commotion in silence. What does anyone want a candle for anyway? I figured it was the wrong word, and that the ideal word was lighter. We needed to light the gas to use the hob to heat the hot water for the coffee and this so called tea. Either way I couldn’t help.

It turned out, the candle was for the tea. A lighter was, as I presumed, also required, and found. The kettle boiled. Maria poured the hot water into the teapot and stood it above the tealight – to keep it warm. A jam jar lid went on top because the original lid is missing.

That was breakfast. We worked for a while, until lunch, which Maria forgot, half started and then abandoned with flamboyance. Moving faster than I’d ever seen her move before, Maria instructed me to tell Leonardo to stop working. We were late and… the children. Until this point there had been no prior mention of any children. Missing or otherwise.

I said, “Ok.”

Confused because my instructions had been given in Italian, I went to the workshop where Leonardo looked at me and had the same panic as Maria. He ran out of the house behind her. I’m not sure either of them were wearing shoes.

The children appeared sometime later trailing behind a joyful Maria and a singing Leonardo. We ate. Thankfully. Then Leonardo made them wooden toys out of the scraps of wood that remained from making the Christmas letters.

In a moment of chaos, mid-afternoon, when numerous neighbours appeared, the children disappeared again.

I discover, that due to Maria’s need to be productive, I’m cooking dinner. But I don’t know what dinner is, or when we’re having it. Nor do I know what I’m cooking. Lentils and carrots float around in a pot.

A debate, in Sicillian/Italian/French, followed about how one doesn’t need a fork for soup. With Leonardo shouting from the workshop that Maria had to ask me how to say spoon in Italian. All I could think of was the French, which I started shouting back. At least I now knew I was making soup.

To add to my difficulties, the stove required constant feeding with wood. But hey.

Furthermore, dinner required salt. It was my job to taste the food and add the correct amount of salt. I’m ungenerous with salt at the best of times. I save it for special occasions.

And the ‘sale’ jar was empty.

If it was just dinner, or just the salt, I might managed to remain restrained.

Just as we’re sitting down for dinner, there was a commotion about the ladle. I waved my hands in despair. Some shouting and laughter. Leonardo handed me the ladle and I repeated its name three times.

Everyone laughs because I’m saying the wrong thing again.

I lift my hands in a big Italian gesture.

Now I’ve raised my voice, it’s feeling more Yorkshire.

And I’m like, “What?”

Although tempted to swear, I don’t. This is just what it takes to adapt.

As we sit down for dinner, everyone seems more relaxed. I realise it’s me. And my English restraint is as hard on them as their Italian cresendo.

What’s the most challenging kitchen you’ve ever had to cook in?

[Read more about my adventures in Sicily.]

How to deal with that day of travelling when nobody likes each other

Travelling with friends
Icarus, crash-landed in the ancient Roman forum of Pompei, telling us it’s inadvisable to get too close to the sun.  Sculptures by Igor Mitoraj.

For good reason, travelling alone is not everyone’s cup of tea. However, it can, on occasion, seem preferable to travelling with a friend.

Travelling with a friend can stir up a whole set of small irritations that in normal circumstances would pass unnoticed. Imagine spending every waking, and non-waking moment with someone, more time than if you were in a relationship, every little friction intensifies. Happy interdependence heats up, until you realise you’re bound together and can’t escape. Or at least can’t escape without breaking an unspoken contract.

You entwine your plans around each other, because you love each other, and only later wonder why in this travel – which is supposed to be freeing – you feel trapped. Aren’t you having fun?

I’ve travelled alone, but not everybody has. Alone, with nobody else to please, I’m capable of walking around the central streets of a city for half an hour trying to decide where to have coffee and a croissant for breakfast (Modena). And that’s without anyone else to appease. That’s just taking in my desires for the right looking croissants, happy clientele, serving staff who smile. Coffee that smells good. A week of such behaviour and even my most loving friends are going to be going batty.

Expect the friction

DeepThought and the Circumvesuviana

In Italy, on the first Sunday of the month there’s free entry to the tourist sites of Pompei, Herculaneum and the scattered villas that Mt. Vesuvius buried with its volcanic spread of AD. 89.

DeepThought and I had been going crazy visiting places and seeing things. Neither of us are concerned by a 40-minute walk here or there, so we’d also done a lot of walking. Mostly searching for an elusive pizza restaurant with a chimney, but that’s another story (and all my fault).

Sunday morning, I overslept. We disagreed on the urgency of lunch. At the train station, acting out of habit, we got on the wrong train. On realising, we then got off the train, took another train back and then a third train to get to where we’d wanted to be. Finally at the station we were heading to, we became uncertain as to whether we were at the right station. There were no obvious signs to the mysterious villas, and this being lunch time on a Sunday there was nothing open and nobody about.

We started walking in a direction. The threat offered by the grey sky was no bluff. Only I had a coat. We began again, walking in a different direction. Changed our minds, and finally ended up at a cross roads where a small sign pointed down the road to a villa.

Since it was the first Sunday of November, in the ticket office there was a visitor book that one had to sign. I signed my name in all the boxes, recording DeepThought’s home city as a squiggle of my own name.

At Pompei, the rain would have been miserable, but although the villa wasn’t architecturally as exciting as anything we’d seen in the previous few days, it was at least mostly covered. This was something to be grateful for.

After viewing that villa, we walked along the road to the next villa (taking another wrong turn along the way). There was no path. And it was so late when we finally arrived that the villa was closed. Quiet.

Ravenous, I bought and consumed a large packet of chocolate brioche from an open supermarket.

Sicily and the loud house

It’s not such a different story from what happened only a month later, when, confined in a house with two Sicilian’s and not enough space I found myself angering at the slightest provocation. It felt like an impossible situation but it was simply a matter of too much all at once.

Sometimes it’s just not so easy to be having fun.

“But we’ve been friends forever.”

Sadly, it doesn’t matter how well intentioned the other person is. Neither Maria asking if I was alright, telling me that my happiness really mattered to her, nor DeepThought gritting his teeth and behaving with supreme English gentleman’s reserve was enough. It happens every time I travel with anyone.

And it’s not just me.

When I pull up my chair in a café or bar, and start listening to people who have travelled a lot, everyone seems to have stories to tell about travelling with friends. Home friends, that put up with our not being there and don’t let our never-ending supply of photos of sunny beaches grate on them too much, especially while they’re in the office on a Monday morning, are valued and precious creatures. These are people who know us by more than first impressions. And that mix of history and knowledge makes for an intimacy and belonging that lonely travellers long for.

And yet, everyone seems to have cautionary tales of mixing close friends and travel. I’ve witnessed enough exchanges of horror stories where one person ends up leaving the other in South Africa or India alone. Or two people have a spat and a breakdown in the supermarket, on a hostel floor, or in the middle of some tourist’s photo of the Arc De Triumph

Don’t waste your time blaming, plan space

I’m going to irritate anyone travelling with me.

I’m going to get crabby at some point as I wear out if they have too much time without a decent and whole chunk of solitary space to recover and rejuvenate. The least I can do is be upfront about it and encourage whomever I’m with to call me out on any sharp or snide comments that escape. It’s not personal.

Sometimes it seems like a waste of good time that you could spend together, to have days apart, to visit coffee shops alone, or endeavour to accomplish a lone 10km run. But space is what makes getting along possible. If I don’t read a book, write my diary and go for a walk or a run I’m insufferable.

I used to feel bad about not always being attentive. But now I know that in the long run, escaping a while is a kindness.

In the Bay of Naples, with DeepThought, when we arrived back at our apartment, I hid in the kitchen and cooked. Cooking is a great solace. An apartment offers more space than a hostel or hotel.

What to do if being alone scares you

Budapest. I’ve pushed Midget for days, forcing her beyond her comfort zone. Her feet ache from the walking I’ve made her do.

Budapest is big. It’s heavy and it’s dirty. The stunning buildings scream the richness of Vienna but look like Miss Havisham is in charge of the housework. Midget, quite frankly, had reached a point of enough.

So, she curled up on the bed and read a book.

And I went outside, not so far because when she’s feeling uncertain about things it’s not worth worrying her about where I might be. But I went outside, leaving her alone in our apartment, and I sat on a bench which she could have seen if she’d peered out her window, and I sat and sketched the parliament building.

And when she’d finished her book, she was ready to play again.

Don’t let intense emotions surprise you

“Which of us was crying?”

“I think it must have been me.”

“By the coffee shop by the metro station.”

“Yeah that’s right.” Understanding pause. “So where shall we go next?”

It’s just an acknowledgement of reality. You can’t keep up an illusion or pretence of perfection, which is itself a precious freedom. Travel isn’t about just exploring the scenery. It’s as much internal as external. When you travel with a friend you’re taking them on that journey with you. You’re going to have intense moments, deep conversations and as cliché as it is, you’ll change.

Laugh about how you’re going to get it wrong

So, if I were to give one piece of advice to any friends travelling together, it would be this, laugh at how you’re going to irritate the hell out of each other.

As one friend joked, on a particularly vexing afternoon: “At least being stuck with me is good practice for when you have children.”

What do you see when you look in the mirror?

There are more ways to put yourself out of your comfort zone than getting on a plane and reaching for the unknown. When we say ‘comfort zone’, we’re rarely talking about physical comfort. It’s more likely to be a question of emotions.

Fear of embarrassment, that someone will see though us, that we will look and feel like a fraud. That we aren’t deserving. Aren’t good enough. We fear we won’t maintain our self-control. And losing it will alienate us from those we love. We will fail. They, those more perfect human beings whose validation we crave, will judge us and find us wanting.

Mirror, mirror, on the wall. Can I really go out in this?

These feelings keep us bound to our sense of the possible.

Consider this: when you ask a young child to choose their own clothes, they pick out clothes that give them a sense of fun – glittery princess dresses, Spiderman costumes and jumpers with lions on them. As an insecure adult, ‘fun’ rarely reaches high on the priority list. What matters is how you compare to your peers and how well you match your own image of perfection.

Perfection, with its flawless skin, humble manner and outstanding intelligence isn’t just something we conjure up in our minds. It’s the creature we compare ourselves to. We look in a mirror, right past ourselves and into a game of spot the difference. We look at adverts, with their shiny, white teeth and glossy hair. Envy at smooth, edited thighs and flat stomachs.

The boring jumper, that someone once said that you looked slim in, is suddenly a highly-prized possession. Despite knowing that the off-hand comment came from a place of insecurity and had nothing to do with you, or your jumper, you still remember it.

Alone, walking through some abandoned lemon groves, I came across a ruined building, and a mirror.

What do you see when you look in the mirror? What I see reminds me of Scrooge with his ghosts of the past, present and the yet to come. In the mirror, they’re all there, all at once. Challenging me.

I’m reminded of a conversation I had last week, where Midget, discussing coaching, explained that it’s not enough to give someone the belief to be themselves. You’ve got to do more than that, if they’re going to be the best them they can be. You’ve got to show them how to see themselves.

So yes, comfort zones might stretch with trips abroad: visits to new places, bright colours, contrasting attitudes, and raucous evenings. Explorations of the world  adventures make you reconsider what is important. For me, the perspectives I gain from travelling, that force me to question how I judge others, are invaluable.

But comfort zones can also be stretched in that moment where you stare in the mirror. The barriers I have are not out there, they’re in my mind.  It doesn’t matter whether I’m in Cairo or Coventry. My limiting beliefs are still dragging along behind me.

So, guess which jumper I’m wearing.

 

Just some things I did last year

last year
The Nile, Egypt, 2016

Last year I sat on the edge of Horemheb’s tomb – he’s the king that came shortly after Tutankhamun – and I shared tea with three Egyptian men. One invited me to be his third wife, I declined. We laughed about football and he told me about his kids.

Last year I said yes to a young Egyptian man who wanted to buy me coffee. I beat him at pool, and he took me out for dinner. I drove his horse through the villages on the west bank. We saw cows being slaughtered and he bought me chocolate even when I told him not to.

Last year I went to a beautiful club on a boat on the Nile. My dress was the longest dress of all the women. I wore the least makeup and had my shoulder’s covered. In the middle of the dance floor, I belly-danced, for the first time. I was never short of a partner.

Last year I danced on the beach after the sun had set, earphones in, feet bare, not caring who was watching, just because I could.

Last year I spent 9 days in noble silence, doing serious meditation, with more disciplined, more focused and more patience than I had ever imagined.

Last year I woke up early to run up the hill and watch the sun rising on the horizon.

Last year a guy stopped me as I was walking past and apologized for his impropriety, but he just needed to tell me that I was beautiful. I beat him at pool.

Last year I watched my sister stride across the stage, greet her chancellor as an equal and take her degree. No other woman showed such confidence.

Last year I watched my sister fall in love.

Last year I became fitter than I have ever been. I ran up my mountain and swam in the sea. I cycled up a 20% hill and almost fell off my bike at the top.

Last year I created a network of au pairs so that I’d always have someone to have coffee with. I learnt about Italian food, Irish fears of commitment, German heartbreaks, Swedish grit, American religion, philosophy and gynaecologists. We ate chocolate croissants that melted in your mouth.

Last year I ate carrot cake pancakes, and told my secrets. Even the ones that I didn’t want to tell.

Last year I did the grape harvest and made wine.

Last year I caught a black donkey in a dark wood.

Last year I designed, traced, sawed, sanded and painted Christmas lights for the centre of Palermo. I walked beneath them and realized I’d made something real.

Last year I taught nature studies in Catalan, babysat in French (in a really big castle), and did woodwork in Italian.

Last year I read 58 books.

Last year I watched the sun set, orange on a winter’s sky.

Last year I saw the milky way and hunted zombies in the vegetable patch.

Last year I was told thank you by more people, with more sincerity and for more reasons than I could have imagined.

For last year, I am truly grateful.

Thinking about the stranger on the plane

Palermo, lamps

The plane hits the tarmac, and the Italian lady beside me smiles. I worry for her. She’s in London now, and not so many people here speak Italian. Her English is non-existent. How’s she going to know where the way out is, or baggage reclaim? How’s she going to manage the train, or the tube? How is she going to find her hotel?

It is a stupid concern. I barely know her. I’ve spent the three-hour flight and the twenty-minute delay sleeping. I know she’s not my responsibility. And yet, as I watch her shift uncomfortably beside me, I feel a sense of concern on her behalf.

She will of course be fine. Her phone works, she has access to the Internet. She can translate as she goes, check out the train times and if in doubt loudly wave her arms at whomever is working in the ticket office. Even if success requires carefully pronouncing the place where she wants to travel five times, taking a deep breath and then resorting to writing the name down on paper to get a ticket, she’ll be fine. There will be moments of frustration when communication seems impossible. And there will be wonderful moments of relief when understanding miraculously appears. But she’s going to be fine and one day she’ll be like me, sitting on the plane home.

On a normal everyday basis, I live in this same communication whirlwind. But now I’m home.

Do you find it surprising that, for me, it feel like abroad I am fluent and here I am lost for words.

I can make a friend anywhere, but home forces me to think about how to be a good friend. Relationships involve work, more so than chatting with someone who has no expectation of seeing you again. Being invested in someone in the long run is more complex. For me it’s hard work. I’m more uncertain about my words. I care about what I say and I wish I could say something meaningful and intelligent but most of the time I find myself lost. Sometimes I really screw up.

When I travel, people ask, what and where next. I shrug, smile and explain that I’ll think about that properly in January. To them this seems perfectly reasonable. They don’t care. In January, we won’t be part of each others lives.

But at home, so much uncertainty is less of a satisfactory an answer. Here there are people in my life who are rather more invested in my future. Love, blood and history matters. I’m interacting not with some delightful stranger, but friends and family who I deeply love. It terrifies me.

I wonder who the Italian lady has waiting back home for her.

Sometimes it’s not so fun

palermo christmas lights

By the time I boarded the flight home I was exhausted. The final two weeks had been some of the hardest weeks of this year, and at times this year has been tough.

First though, before I can explain why they were so tough, I have to explain some things about me. I’m incredible lucky. I’ve grown up witnessing a beautiful loving relationship in my parents. There is tolerance and patience in my home. Nobody has ever shouted at me. If anyone is going to slam doors, it’s only going to be me. My family will tease me for it later on, as they should.

I moved into a house with an Italian couple. They’d married later in life. Each had two grown children who lived in the city. This is Sicily, and whilst there are beautiful oranges and cachi, there is no money growing on the trees.

Procrastination

I arrived on the Tuesday evening. The first argument appeared to be about which way to drive. This wasn’t a case of back seat driving, because the van had no back seats. It was a case of arm waving in the driver’s face, followed by short silent huffs. I think the second argument was about how much to spend on petrol, and whether this station was of an acceptable price. The petrol light was on.

The couple spoke little English. Leonardo knew more, but only really started speaking it towards the end of my stay. Maria had learnt the names of the vegetables.

We collected the designs for some wooden stars that would be dressed with Christmas lights and displayed in the centre of Palermo. You can see them in the picture above. We were supposed to also collect the designs for a bunch of letters that would be hung in the streets, but the printer was having a technical glitch so this didn’t happen.

This was Tuesday. The deadline for the work was Friday.

On Wednesday I didn’t do much.  Maria was staying with her sister so she wasn’t there and wasn’t working. Leonardo started with the stars. I sorted the woodpile and went for a walk. However I quickly discovered that there wasn’t anywhere to walk. The valley was big and beautiful, but either side of the road was walled with tall fences. I walked along the road until it came to a dead end and then back to where it joined with the main road. There were no footpaths and the nearest village was an hour away. We had no food so we ate at the neighbour’s house.

When she came home, Maria brought the templates for the letters.

Tracing

I got up just after seven on Thursday, made myself some breakfast and got ready to work. Maria wasn’t ready to start on the letters until ten. Before we could start, her and Leonardo had to argue about the process. I sat down at the table and started tracing the letter templates onto tracing paper. Maria sat opposite. I tried to have a conversation, but she spent almost the entire time on her phone arguing with people in loud Italian. I wished there was some music or something. There wasn’t.

Leonardo and I carried the wood into the living room to start tracing on the letters. He came back twenty minutes later and yelled at Maria about how we were doing it wrong. There was a lot of arm waving. Maria yelled louder. I continued to draw letters.

There were 120 letters to draw and on Thursday we’d done about half. I was by this point a little uneasy. After all the deadline I’d been told was most definitely Friday.

Sanding and Painting

We began sanding on Friday afternoon, but there was no hope of finishing. Arguing took up too much time.

After a loud phone call the deadline was extended to Sunday evening. By this point most of the letters still hadn’t been cut out, and only the first of the three stars had been begun. I was given a bucket of paint and a box of letters. Maria decided she was going to do wash some clothes. That weekend she washed four loads, stuffing her 12kg machine full every time. She wanted to do some cleaning too. Leonardo took the van and went out somewhere.

I plugged my earphones in and began painting. Three hours later Maria finally sat down to join me. She decides we’ve used the wrong paint. What we need is paint with more glue in it. She adds glue and says we’ll just have to repaint all the letters I’ve already done.

Leonardo comes in and they have an argument about the paint. I go and wait outside in the sunshine for things to quieten down. It’s concluded that the second paint was no good either. I’m given a hairdryer but no explanation about what I’m supposed to be doing. We have to leave the paint for the moment.

Saturday afternoon I sand more letters. Sunday comes and I sand the stars wondering where they’re going to get more paint. Leonardo continues cutting more letters out.

Monday morning. Leonardo shouts and he sounds angry. Maria doesn’t listen, she’s cleaning. She raises her voice sharply. The volume comes in waves. There is a stop. The saw begins again. It whirs for a while and then stops because you can’t saw, shout and gesture. A door swings shut in spectacular style.

I plugged in my earphones and messaged a close friend. Having him to talk to is a life saver. By evening my phone is dying.

Visitors

In the afternoon, a young Italian couple arrived to help. In the evening, Leonardo refuses to sit at the table with us all to eat his meal.

Tuesday morning and an eerie silence reigns. Leonardo invited the neighbour over for coffee in the workshop. Maria tells them both that there is no coffee. They’re petty and angry and the angrier they get the less interested they are in speaking English. Maria sits on the floor and cries.

A girl from Finland turns up. She’s sharing my bedroom with me. Unsurprisingly, I crave space. I want to curl up and hide, but I talk non-stop, trying to make the fact that nobody is being nice to each other more bearable. I’m fully aware that I’m acting like a ray of sunshine and I can’t keep it up. I proceed to get more and more animated.

Delivery

On Wednesday afternoon Maria puts her make-up and she and Leonardo drive into Palermo to deliver the three stars. It’s quiet in the house. I talk to the Finnish girl who doesn’t know what to do with herself. A phone call comes – we must make polenta for dinner. I’ve never made polenta before. I add more wood to the stove and put the water on to boil while I take a shower. Polenta takes 45 minutes of stirring. I’m sweating, exhausted and my cheerful bubble is showing signs of cracking.

They arrive. Loudly. Leonardo sits down in the armchair and tells Maria that he doesn’t eat polenta. Dinner is ready, but it takes some time before we finally have dinner. I glare at the wall. Silently furious. I’ve finally cracked.

Day two in a Sicilian household: “Caterina!”

Sicilian goat-dog

“Caterina!”

I appear and am instructed to an armchair, in front of the armchair is the stove. My Sicilian host, Leonardo, is wearing a fleece hat that reminds me of my school PE teacher whom we nicknamed Dopey after the seventh dwarf. He used to tuck his hat behind his ears in the cold English months of school hockey.

Leonardo pointed to the stove and explains, in gestures and a word or two of English, that the stove is the central heating and will warm my room; it’s also the heat for the kettle so I can have a cup of tea (I wonder how exactly as we have no teabags); since I need it to stay warm, when the wood burns through I’ll need to reload the stove; and I should relax with the company of my computer in the armchair.

We have a common language, but it doesn’t involve words. It exists through the mutual understanding that comes from having similar cultures. It’s easy to notice the differences when you travel, but such communication happens through the similarities. It’s action and hand waving, and what you might call common sense. It works surprisingly well when you stick to the concrete. The abstract less so.

His partner, Maria, is away, returning tonight. In the meantime, we’re having our meals at Francesco’s house, our neighbour.  He runs a home for stray and abandoned dogs with the help of a volunteer who’s staying there. Dinner time company is therefore two Sicilian men, smoking, drinking wine and talking with their arms; a grounded nomadic Swiss woman, Greta; and little English me.

During dinner I learn that Francesco has a philosophy of resorting to Nutella mid-afternoon to fill the empty hole in his soul that’s caused by the absence of love. Greta says Nutella is bad for our bodies and bad for the environment and sugar isn’t going to solve lovesickness. She does the cooking and believes in eating with kindness. She also is fluent in at least four languages including Italian and English.

“Basta!”

Enough. The kitchen is also home to supposedly two dogs – the house dogs – but frequently four because, like me, they don’t understand the rules.

Sicilian style language learning

learn english italian
A random sculpture found hanging out on the balcony. Sicily, 2016


First, find something you don’t know how to say. Gesture wildly, play charades, describe the word or phrase in high speed Italian (or Sicilian). Ignore my confusion.

Halfway through an elaborate sentence, pause. See that I’m trying to say something that might be useful. You’re sure it’s wrong, so keep gesturing until I say a word you prefer the sound of. There are many English words. You can pick and choose vocabulary. You avoid ugly words and choose emotionally. Maybe you don’t know why you like it, but that’s okay.

It’s probably wrong. Take both words. I’ll use them as pairs, defining one against the other ‘audacity’ fights ‘courage’, ‘to learn’ takes on ‘to find’. Somehow, I’ll convince you that ugly words are worthwhile too.

Sing a song. ‘Find’ is similar to ‘discover’ but you think it’s uglier, and Columbus discovered America, and at school Leonardo learnt about Columbus – on the 12 October he set off from somewhere in Spain. Don’t worry if you’re now lost. Comprehension is a bonus. Dance. If there isn’t enough space in the room, it doesn’t matter. Sing in any language. ‘We are the champions’ followed by ‘My bonny lies over the ocean’, if you like.

Discover, or find out, that this verb, to learn, is not regular. I fumble and speak in staccato. I gesture with the whole length of my arms. My gestures have become wild.

“No, no, no, no, no!” Who sounds Italian now? Slam the table.

I will watch as you argue in Italian, without breathing. Raise your voice until it’s indiscernible from shouting.

And keep shouting.

Then in a normal quiet voice turn to me, repeat the ugly word and clarify its meaning.

I’m starting to speak Italian.